Now You See Me shows the body as the ultimate versatile subject on which to project ideas of aesthetics, society, identity and politics. The exhibition also presents a combination of established and emerging artists and also includes various techniques within the photographic medium, from the historic to the contemporary. The use of the self-portrait in particular is a potent and direct one. American photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero sets up her tripod and takes self portraits in public places without much pre-meditated direction or composition. It is only afterwards that she selects the images where people behind her back pull faces in disgust or laugh at her size. It is a fascinating insight into the cruelty of human nature and bold territory for a photographer to embrace in relation to their own body.
The ultimate exploration of the physical self in relation to personal existence is depicted in the work of British artist Jo Spence. Living with cancer for the last decade of her life, the images here are from her series ‘The Final Project’. Concerned with the passing of time and with her own physical deterioration making new work difficult, she often showed her body in various double exposures on top of earlier work. In particular often ‘returning to nature’, floating superimposed on a rocky shore, or in a series of self-portraits, superimposed against existing images of torn materials, blood cells, or landscapes to create new works.
The aesthetic nature of the nude has long been depicted, but here three female artists show themselves in a playful and subversive manner. Juno Calypso’s surreal self-portraits taken as her alter ego ‘Joyce’ in a honeymoon hotel in Pennsylvania reference both society’s obsession with beauty, advertising and horror films. Rasha Kahil’s project ‘In Your Home’ shows the photographer naked or half-clothed in someone else’s home. Whilst her host had left the room she had quickly removed her clothes and taken a self-portrait. They return and are oblivious to what has just happened. Rachel Howard’s self-portrait from 1995 is of the young artist pregnant with her first child, angrily revealing her bump from under her wedding dress, physically and mentally trapped from her 7th floor council flat in Brixton.
The body is also the perfect vehicle to harness various photographic techniques in both form and content. In Brazilian/American artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s life–size cyanotype from her series ‘Summertime Blues’ she lay on the roof of her studio in New York under hot summer light to expose the cyanotype fabric and reveal the shape of her own body. Eloise Fornieles’s cyanotype from her series ‘Sabine States’ traces the outline of the woman in the Florentine statue ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ by Giambologna, within the outline of the body lie objects such as a pig’s heart and flowers.
Mat Collishaw’s ‘The Corporeal Audit’ simulates a modern-day CAT scan, and as the light moves up and down it reveals the image of a body in a technique similar to a traditional ‘lithophane’. The starting point of the work is a photograph which then translates to a sculptural relief. In ‘UV Garden, Alice and the Fairies’ the photographic image is screen-printed in UV paint onto acrylic, and is again only revealed when the UV light is shone on it. Collishaw’s imagery often references art history and this work in particular the 1917 faked photographic series ‘Cottingly Fairies’. It evokes a romantic nostalgia tempered with a darker contemporary sensibility and reference to a time when photography was a new and suspiciously viewed art form.
Finally French artist Thomas Mailaender presents two works from his series ‘Illustrated People’. Taking old large format negatives from the vast London-based photographic archive Archive of Modern Conflict he burned their images directly onto the skin of people using UV sun lamps. The body itself becomes part of the image-making process, a brutal but innovative twist on the physical nature of human skin imitating the developing chemical processes of photography.